By Caroleine James
Wrangell Sentinel 

Three dead, three still missing after 11-Mile landslide covers homes

 

November 22, 2023

Courtesy Sunrise Aviation

The landslide came down at 11-Mile late Monday night, killing at least one person with several more missing as of Tuesday.

One juvenile female and two adults are confirmed dead after a massive landslide 11 miles from town covered three homes on Monday night. Three people — one adult and two juveniles — were still missing as of late Tuesday evening. Local and state rescue teams are engaged in an ongoing search.

First responders arrived at the scene soon after the slide was reported at 8:51 p.m. Monday. Shortly after, they started a “hasty search” for survivors, said Austin McDaniel, communications director for the state Department of Public Safety. In the initial search, an adult female was rescued and a deceased juvenile female was found.

The woman who was rescued “is currently listed in good condition and is currently receiving medical care,” McDaniel said Tuesday.

Since the land around the slide was still moving Monday night, first responders paused the ground search until a state geologist could arrive on scene to assess the area.

The landslide covered just under 500 feet of road, according to the most recent estimates by Shannon McCarthy of the state Department of Transportation. Two homes on the mountainside and one on the water were directly impacted.

The search continued Tuesday morning via air and water. DOT provided a drone equipped with thermal detection, and two adults were found deceased under the rubble. They were recovered later in the day, after a state geologist determined that some areas of the ground were safe to search.

The troopers do not have information about the length of time that somebody trapped under a landslide of this size could survive. However, this is “still very much an active search and rescue operation,” said McDaniel. “All of our teams on the ground are looking at it with the same lens.”

Under current weather conditions, survivability in the water is about six hours, according to Capt. Darwin Jensen of the U.S. Coast Guard.

About 20 to 30 people have been evacuated from homes between 11-Mile and 13-Mile, said Interim Borough Manager Mason Villarma, though “we don’t have clear information on that yet.”

The Stikine Inn and Sourdough Lodge have both offered their facilities to evacuees.

The timeline for clearing the highway and returning people to their homes is indefinite and depends in part on the stability of the landslide. However, based on response times to similar disasters in the area, McCarthy estimates it will take one to two weeks to clear the road.

This type of landslide is called a “debris flow,” according to state geologist Barrett Salisbury, and typically occurs when soil becomes saturated with water and can no longer hold itself in place.

These “notably destructive” flows can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour.

“Without specialized instruments in place long before an event like this, it’s virtually impossible to prevent this type of catastrophe,” Salisbury said, adding that this variety of landslide is a risk throughout Southeast.

He was not aware that a comprehensive landslide risk assessment had ever been conducted for the area.

The Monday landslide was likely caused by recent heavy rains regionwide. Wrangell had received over three inches of rain between early Monday and Tuesday morning, according to KSTK reporting.

There were several landslides on Prince of Wales Island on Monday — an area that was impacted by the same storm system.

 

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